“Too often we find that many chiefs, administrators, and even first-line supervisors know less than the newest recruits about tactical force issues, yet they are the ones that stand in judgment of officers and their decisions.” —Jeff Chudwin, attorney, chief of police (ret) and president of the Illinois Tactical Officers Assoc.
Truer words have rarely been spoken. Read it again if you don’t agree.
Two weeks ago I wrote an article about people “Monday-morning quarterbacking” police officers’ use of force—something I believe has to happen in a free society. My issue was in the people who do the evaluating.
The column was inspired by my visit to the University of Minnesota with friends whose son plays on the Nebraska football team. While watching what would become a surprising upset over the Cornhuskers, I witnessed—and participated in—immediate “Monday-morning quarterbacking” of virtually everything that was going on at field level: coaching, running, executing routes, decisions on passing to particular receivers.
Eventually I made this point when the QB missed an open receiver: “When QB Taylor Martinez failed to see Jordan Westerkamp breaking over the middle, he didn’t have the luxury of sitting 11 rows up … At the time Westerkamp made his move, Martinez had a real 295-pound tackle, who probably runs a 4.8 40, bearing down on him with one thought in mind: Hit, mangle and maim Martinez. As I said, it’s easy from the cheap seats.”
And there are many, many who are nestled in those economical chairs at-the-ready to pass judgment when police officers use force. Some of those passing judgments are reasonable, and come from a perspective that includes both experience and legal knowledge. Some are truly objective. Most, however, are not. Some—very few—understand the complexity of force issues. All the rest do not.
I’ll be the first to admit that officers under massive stress —the type of stress unfamiliar and completely foreign to the vast majority of Americans—make mistakes: sometimes fatal ones. For over 33 years we have openly discussed mistakes and analyzed videos of officers making errors in the Calibre Press Street Survival Seminar. We even have an entire block of time in our first day of the seminar devoted to officers making mistakes, losing control and even committing crimes. Our purpose isn’t to blame, but rather to enlighten other officers that such behavior happens and very real and very serious consequences are the result. We address ethics and the aftermath associated with these types of conduct.
I want to point out that it’s also impossible to be totally unbiased and absolutely objective when it comes to judging an officer’s use of force. No one can do that, and they shouldn’t. But any opinion needs bias based on facts and from the prism of honest assessment that considers the totality of the circumstances present the moment the officer acted. Outside of a courtroom, this rarely happens—especially in the media.
I admit I take my shots at the biased, ratings-driven media quite regularly. But this article isn’t about them, it’s about us: law enforcement. When media mouths ramble on about brutality, oppression and crazed cops, they can cause problems for those involved. But after the immediate angst and political upheaval has subsided, the facts need be examined in the light of day. And that examination must be done by people who know what they’re doing, who know the law and understand the true totality of stress, memory, perception and decisions made in the blink of an eye.
I facilitate a seminar I really enjoy called “Finding the Leader in You.” When teaching this to law enforcement we have attendees representing ranks from patrol officers and deputies to chiefs and sheriffs. The first half of the first day is almost totally devoted to the reality of leading within the profession, and violence and the use of force is addressed at length; note I separate the two: violence and the use of force.
What surprised me years ago was how uncomfortable some “bosses” are during this section. Today I do my best not to embarrass, but it’s obvious most know little about the real aspects of force, such as memory, false memory, unintentional blindness, perceptual distortions, general stress, physiological realities and even case law. I stopped asking how many knew the Graham v. Connor decision (the seminal Supreme Court case that examines an officer’s use of force from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene taking into account the totality of circumstances and not judged with the 20/20 vision of hindsight) because very few did.
I don’t have enough room here—nor do I have the expertise—to dissect the case and address the many nuances of the law used in conjunction with the facts of other particular cases. My point is to follow up on what Chief Chudwin said over 20 years ago: Those who stand in judgment don’t know enough about tactical force issues.
For 18 years I was heavily involved in our use-of-force programs, training, analysis, research and the writing of our general orders. None of this made me an expert, but it did open my eyes to how incredibly ignorant we all were about the parameters of using force back in 1991. It’s almost laughable now.
But in 2013 that ignorance still exists in some quarters. And there’s no reason for a lack of understanding. There are plenty of legal training courses out there that explain Graham vs. Connor and other use-of-force decisions. There’s a plethora of research readily available about the physiological and psychological realities of stress, decision making, perception and memory.
I’m a firm supporter of The Force Science Institute, as I believe all in law enforcement should be—especially supervisors. The free website, www.forcescience.org, is there for the taking. Everyone, and I do mean everyone, should join. There’s no downside! Led by Bill Lewinsky, PhD, of Minnesota State University Mankato, all these guys do is study use-of-force cases and the physiological and psychological realities of what happens to the body, mind, memory, senses, and perspectives of officers during high stress incidents. Their week-long class fills up almost immediately after posting. I believe every agency in the country should send at least one member of command to that seminar (No, I’m not related in any way with the Force Science Institute).
Viewing a force video from the cheap seats and critiquing an officer from the paradigm of ignorance is easy. Let’s take the case I mentioned last week, from Dallas, where an officer shot a man with a knife while the man was virtually standing still.
I’m not—and let me repeat for those of you who give only cursory reads to articles before commenting—I’m not saying the officer used appropriate force in this case. But, I will tell you this: I don’t know! Why, with my experience, don’t I know? Because I don’t know all the facts.
The facts I do know are these:
- The police were called by the 58-year-old subject’s mother because he was “out of control.”
- He was mentally ill and the mother asked for officer’s trained in dealing with such people.
- He had a knife and stood up upon the officer’s arrival.
- The suspect made a comment to the officers, who looked to have been about 20–25 feet away, that they were going to need “more cops.”
- The officer who shot wrote that the subject raised the knife and stepped toward him, prompting the officer to believe he was in imminent danger.
- The video doesn’t show the knife being raised.
Was the officer in immediate danger? Did he lie on the report? Was he afraid? Was he terrified? Was he looking for the opportunity to kill someone that day? He wasn’t.
He was definitely stressed. The question is, what did that stress do to his senses, his perception of reality? Is it possible he believed the knife was raised?
Some of these questions will look preposterous to the untrained and inexperienced. Why? Because the type of stress normal people encounter isn’t in the same stratosphere as the stress experienced by someone who believes they’re in imminent danger of death.
Could the words “You’re gonna need more cops,” uttered after standing up and presenting a knife, have brought the officer to an incredible level of stress that skewed his perception?
Is it possible—I’m just asking—that a movement of the head forward and a change of facial expression and tone of voice that revealed anger created a false picture of a knife being raised? Theoretically it’s certainly possible. Memory and perception is something we talk about in many of our classes because understanding the new research is vitally important for those who are on the front lines facing violence.
I suggest some books, articles and websites for those of you in the profession that should educate yourselves in these matters, and those of you in the cheap seats who might be interested in learning about the reality officers encounter all-too-often on the job. So here goes.
- On Killing and On Combat by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman
- Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool by Taylor Clark
- The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons
- Arresting Communication: Essential Interaction Skills for Law Enforcement by myself (examines the unconscious part of the brain)
- The Force Science Institute; www.forcescience.org
By the way, Westerkamp, the wide receiver from Nebraska, the very next week caught his first touchdown pass. It was a 65-yard Hail Mary with 0:00 left on the clock. It made the top play for ESPN. Check it out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GeY809u6N0U
Jeff Chudwin is the Law Officer Tactical Ops columnist. He’s also the 2009 Law Officer Trainer of the Year. He retired this past year as chief of police after 38 years of service for the Village of Olympia Fields, Ill. A founding member and current president of the Illinois Tactical Officers Association, Chudwin is a former assistant state’s attorney and has been a firearms, use-of-force and emergency response trainer for more than 25 years.
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